Global push aims to free Bahrain soccer player detained in Thailand
Activists campaigning for the release of Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who has been detained in Thailand since November, warn his situation has become an “emergency” following the submission of a formal extradition request.
Hakeem Al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014, was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok while on his honeymoon on November 27, after Interpol issued a “red notice” — an international arrest warrant — which is not supposed to be given to refugees.
Al-Araibi, 25, holds refugee status in Australia but has been locked in an overcrowded Thai prison cell since being detained while officials await extradition proceedings.
On Monday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, Lieutenant General Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, said that “proceedings to extradite him to Bahrain are in process.” A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman confirmed to CNN on Tuesday that Thailand had transmitted the documents to the Office of the Attorney-General.
Rights groups say if Al-Araibi is extradited to Bahrain, he could face unfair trial, imprisonment and torture. Al-Araibi has publicly said that he was tortured in Bahrain and that his life would be in danger if he returns.
“I think it is imperative to know that Hakeem is a torture survivor,” Evan Jones, program coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) told CNN.
“It is almost certain that he’d suffer the same fate again if returned to Bahrain. The Thai government should outright reject the extradition request from Bahrain and allow Hakeem to return home (to Australia),” said Jones.
Al-Araibi currently plays professional soccer in Australia’s National Premier Leagues Victoria, with Melbourne side Pascoe Vale FC.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the country “remains deeply concerned by the ongoing detention of Mr Hakeem Ali Alaraibi in Thailand.”
“The Australian Government is calling on the Thai Government not to extradite Mr Alaraibi to Bahrain and instead release him home to Australia to be with his friends and family,” the statement said, adding that Payne has “conveyed her deep concern about the matter to Bahrain’s Foreign Minister” and asked the country “not to proceed with the extradition request.”
Campaign to release Al-Araibi intensifies
As Al-Araibi’s fate becomes increasingly uncertain, high-profile activists have launched a global campaign of support, saying that his case has become an “absolute emergency” now that an extradition request has been filed.
Spearheading efforts to free Al-Araibi is former Australia soccer captain Craig Foster, who along with Brendan Schwab, Executive Director of the World Players Association, met with FIFA officials in Zurich on Monday to urge the world soccer governing body to do more to ensure Al-Araibi’s release.
Foster said that from his meeting with Fifa general-secretary Fatma Samoura, Al-Araibi’s case has been “escalated to immediate high level meetings with both countries.”
FIFA “have demonstrated again their commitment to ensure that every stakeholder in football will apply the absolute maximum leverage,” Foster told reporters on Tuesday.
The soccer body has expressed support for Al-Araibi, who previously played for the Bahraini national team, and last week issued a letter to the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asking for high level meetings to discuss Al-Araibi’s situation.
The International Olympic Committee also issued a statement, saying its IOC Member in Thailand has contacted the Thai government urging it to “find a solution based on ‘basic human and humanitarian values.”
Other prominent rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also pushed for his release. HRW launched a digital global campaign under the hashtag #SaveHakeem that encourages supporters to write directly to the Thai prime minister.
British soccer personality Gary Lineker tweeted “Come on FIFA, sort this wrong out.”
Writing in an op-ed with the Guardian last week, Al-Araibi’s wife, who did not want to be named, said she is “devastated at what will happen if he is not freed to return to Australia.”
“I can’t sleep, can’t breathe, knowing what awaits him,” she said.
Fleeing torture in Bahrain
The chief of Thailand’s Immigration Bureau, Surachet Hakpal, told CNN at the time of his arrest that Al-Araibi was detained at the request of Bahrain when he arrived at the airport.
Al-Araibi has been openly critical of the Bahraini government and its record on human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, Al-Araibi has said he was tortured in Baharin in 2012 allegedly because of his brother’s political activities.
In 2014 he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for vandalizing a police station — even though he was playing football abroad in a televised game at the time of the alleged offense according to Amnesty International. He fled to Australia where he was granted refugee status in 2017.
Bahrain’s Interior Minister on Monday defended the extradition request and said that claims Al-Araibi would not receive a fair trial, or would face torture “false reports.”
“External interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain is unacceptable,” he said. “Those raising unfounded doubts about the integrity and independence of the Kingdom’s judicial system are not only interfering, but also attempting to influence the course of justice.”
There is no formal extradition treaty between the two countries, though Thailand does consider requests. Once Thailand receives the documents, they will be translated and processed, which could take up to several months.
Limited contact, overcrowded cells
As global efforts to free him ramp up, Al-Araibi languishes in Bangkok’s Khlong Prem Remand Prison with about 50 other inmates in his cell. He must sleep on the floor and is worried about getting sick, said Jones of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.
Jones, who visited Al-Araibi on Monday, told CNN that he is “reasonably healthy and strong” but “struggling emotionally and psychologically.”
“He is extremely anxious about his case and about the lengths that Bahrain are going to in order to return him back to Manama. Last week he mentioned to me: ‘If you asked me a few weeks ago I was sure that I would be going home to Australia soon. Now I am not so sure. I am really worried and scared that they will get me back. If you see me on TV in Bahrain admitting my guilt don’t believe it. They will force me to say I did things if I go back.”‘
While Al-Araibi is in contact with his lawyer and Australian embassy officials who are providing information about his case, he is unable to see his wife, who has traveled back to Melbourne.
Jones said she emails him but those messages have not been getting to Al-Araibi. “He’s craving any sort of contact or information or communication with her,” Jones said.
Al-Araibi is also alleged to have previously been critical of the actions of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President, Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, who is also a FIFA vice-president and a member of the Bahrain royal family.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Al-Araibi accused Salman of failing to stop a crack down on Bahraini athletes during the 2011 Arab Spring protests.